Nicosia, Cyprus is the last divided capital in the world. Since 1974 when Turkish forces invaded the island and captured 40 per cent of it, a ‘Green Line’ has been running through the city, separating the north from the south. Up until 2003, it was pretty much impossible to go from one side to the other, but things are changing, and now the areas surrounding the UN Buffer Zone are being restored making it one of the most intriguing neighbourhoods of the city. Here you’ll find art galleries, museums, quirky stores and great cafés – it really is something special.
Costa Constanti has been living in the capital for nine years and is extremely passionate about the city. He takes us on a tour along the Green Line, highlighting its history and what it has to offer to visitors.
As the muezzin calls out from the Nicosia minarets that stand high above the mosque domes, the bells on church towers ring out as if to answer them. It’s hard to believe that Cyprus’ capital is not whole; it is divided militarily, and the sounds and smells are the only things that permeate the boundaries. These boundaries have kept the Cypriots apart for around half a century, and were first traversed in 2003 with the first checkpoint opening in the capital. However, cutting east-west right across the city and through the snowflake shaped Venetian walls of the old town, the UN-manned Buffer Zone, known locally as the Green Line or Dead Zone, still exists. The Green Line has almost become institutionalised, with its hopeful eventual dismantling potentially causing quite some confusion for the locals who would have to reorientate their sense of direction to a new reality.
The city is so safe that cafés, bars and even restaurants and clubs have opened on the Green Line – literally on it. In other words, where soldiers once stood fighting, people now sit drinking. Such a bizarre reality – one that you should experience now before the Buffer Zone is brought back to life with the reunification of the city.
My favourite pastime on a mild sunny day is to walk the length of the Green Line, strolling along the front line of either side of the wall, north or south, imagining the ancient past of the city, via its crumbling sandstone walls, the flaking paint on the wooden shutters and build dates stamped above the characteristic eastern Mediterranean doorways. I love to compare the two halves of the old town, proving to myself how for hundreds of years it was one city, and the temporary divide will be lifted soon enough. Each church has an interesting history and a story to tell; the mosques the same. The colours, the paintings, the incense smells and elaborate decorations make for a treat.
The museums, galleries and public venues are full of artefacts and memorabilia, as well as key snippets to the past; sometimes the future. One street may be a quiet and pleasant place for some ‘me’ time, whilst metres away the paved pedestrian areas are heaving with human traffic. Among them you’ll find friends, acquaintances and new faces who each have a destination and an origin. The weather etched faces of the old fruit seller in Ledra Street reminds of the pain of the houses stuck in the Buffer Zone. The smiles on the children playing in the Laiki Geitonia give me hope for the future. Those more my age, in their mid-thirties, bring me to my space, along Onasagorou Street, a street once ghostly that has now become a focal point of attention since the rediscovery of the old town by this generation.
You can go from being fascinated by the ancient, medieval and modern items on display at the Leventis Museum of Nicosia, to enjoying works of art by travelling artists who imprinted their perceptions of Cyprus on canvas back before cameras and smartphones at the Centre for Visual Arts and Research (CVAR) – the old town’s latest gem and only bicommunal museum and gallery on the island.
The Byzantine Museum and Art Gallery is the biggest of its kind in the region and is full of amazing works from across the island, including some rescued pieces from looted churches in the north. The mansion of the dragoman (Ottoman tax collector) Hadjigeorgakis Kornesios is nearby. As the Greek Cypriot collector on behalf of the Sultan, he amassed quite some wealth to build this elaborate mini palace.
Just across the Green Line at Ledra Street, if you turn right to walk down an oriental-style bazaar you find the Buyuk Han, a spectacular inn that was once a stop on the ancient Silk Trail. This is located right next to the Bedestan (St Nicholas Cathedral) and Saint Sophia Cathedral, which was converted hundreds of years ago into Sulemaniye Mosque. The minarets of the building were constructed from the bell towers that were torn down and can be seen from all over Nicosia as they hover in the sky, almost marking the perfect centre of the rounded city.
But this is only scratching the surface. Nicosia is not only Europe’s last divided capital – it’s also probably one of Europe’s least known capitals. And that’s a shame, as it’s one of the most authentic, inhabited, organic and thriving historical cities in the world that draws its history and influence from various regions, occupiers, empires and cultures.
Nicosia is a 40-minute drive from Larnaca International Airport
You can cross over to the north using your passport. Those concerned about visa issues can ask the authorities to stamp on a piece of paper instead of in their passport.
Best months of the year to visit Cyprus are late March – early June and September – early November.
About Costa Constanti
Costa was born in Melbourne, Australia, and moved to Cyprus in 2006. He is an advocate of the crucial and real power of civil society and social media, and an active member of the peace building community in Cyprus, the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. He is often spotted exploring ancient and historical ruins and rambling through nature trails whilst he engages with local people from around the world, forging relations and links between them and Cypriot civil society. In his free time, Costa enjoys dancing Cuban salsa and Argentine tango.